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Ye Old Book Shops

December 25, 2021

This month's Archives' post is brought to you from Archives' intern, Sapphire. While she interned with us, one of her projects included processing the George H. Boyles Papers, which helped formulate an interesting blog post about a history of Nashville's bookstores. Without further ado, take it away, Sapphire...

As many of us have run out of time to do our holiday ordering online, we must slog through the likely overcast or rainy Nashville days with our shopping bags. If you grace the doors of Parnassus or Elders, it may add to your experience to ponder the dreamscapes of Nashville’s bookselling history.

There are several bookstores you may discover in the stacks of the Metro Archives, including the Davis-Kidd collection, which, if you don’t know, formed some of the roots of today’s Parnassus Books. And the George H. Boyle’s Papers, in which he claims to have helped Charles Elder found and operate Elder’s Bookstore. 

In the images below, you see Davis-Kidd Booksellers in 1994. And the letter from the George H. Boyles' Papers is from George to his 1923 classmates at Central High, stating his part in the formation and running of Elder's Bookstore. 

Davis-Kidd Booksellers, 1994
From the George H. Boyles Papers, a letter to his classmates talking about his help in forming Elder's Bookstore.

However, the oldest, grandest bookstore we found will surely inform and delight, as much as the aforementioned will stir nostalgia for Nashvillian bibliophiles. W.T. Berry & Co. provided an entry in the 1859 city directory shown below.

1859 City Directory
1859 City Directory listing for W.T. Berry & Co.
Listing for Book sellers and stationers in the 1945 City Directory

The above listing is from the 1945 City Directory. 

Postcard of Public Square from the Ridley Wills Postcard Collection, circa early 20th century

Above: The Public Square from the Ridley Wills Postcard Collection.

W.T. Berry's Bookshop Fun Facts

Archives-research rabbit holes can be a delightful way to spend a Saturday afternoon. It turns out that there were a lot of interesting facts about Mr. Berry and his bookshop. Here are the highlights:

  • Originally, William Tyler Berry and Wilkins F. Tannehill were partners in the bookshop.
Tennessean clipping from April 4th, 1845
Tennessean clipping from April 4th, 1845.

From The History of Homes and Gardens of Tennessee

  • William Tyler Berry owned an historic Nashville home called the Belle View shown below.
  • His hobby was horticulture.
  • Wilkins Tannehill was his father-in-law and was joint host with Andrew Jackson at the Grand Masonic Ball in Nashville, given in honor of the Marquis de La Fayette, in 1825.
Photo of the Belle View home
Photo of the Belle View home.
  • You can view paintings of Mr. and Mrs. Tannehill in the Nashville Room of the main branch of the Nashville Public Library (2nd floor) and stop by and see us on the third floor, while you're at it!

From Nashville, It's Life and Times

  • Tannehill’s pen captured the origin of the City of Nashville
Page from Nashville, Its Life and Times
  • Tannehill presided over the laying of the cornerstone of the Capitol on July 4, 1845.
  • Tannehill endorsed the way of life in Nashville, enjoying an easy pace but not indolent; he loved to stroll through town and greet people he knew.
Republican Banner April, 1845
A clipping from the Republican Banner, April 1845

From the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture

  • Tannehill’s last great venture before his death in 1858 was the Merchant’s Library and Reading Room, a subscription library formed in downtown Nashville in 1849.

From the Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 1 

  • W.T. Berry’s bookshop lasted from about 1835-1876.
  • Berry’s bookstore was the recognized “Literary center of Nashville.”
  • Stewart speculates the middle-aged Tannehill met Berry, a lad in his late teens, in Hickman county, and both being of a bookish turn, he would have recognized his worth. In any event, Tannehill took Berry with him into the printing business in Nashville.
  • Outstanding political and literary figures met in the reading room of the bookshop.
  • Mr. Berry loaned books from the Reading Room free to his customers.
  • The stock consisted of the finest bound and best printed books of American and European writers, ancient and modern, as well as the current fiction of the times.
  • During this time, the books of Charles Dickens outsold all others.
  • Berry was an Emerson fan and likely was the reason Nashville had the highest sales of Emerson, second only to Boston.
  • The first catalog of the State Library, dated 1855, revealed that $5,000 had been appropriated by the State to purchase books, and the subsequent bi-annual reports of the Library listed many purchases from W. T. Berry and Company. Some of these volumes may be seen at the State Library and Archives today.
  • William Strickland was a frequent customer of the bookstore. It was here that Strickland heard, at first hand, many of the stories of early Nashville, stories told by Wilkins Tannehill and others.
  • Any eminent person visiting the city scarcely felt he had been here if he had not sauntered into Berry's to meet kindred spirits in the discussion of literary and scientific topics, law, and politics.
  • In the store were polished tables of fine woods and cushioned chairs. Two colossal steel engravings hung on walls: one was a rendering of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, and the other was of the Roman Forum–both done in the grandiose style of the day. Coffee and tea were served to favored guests.
  • Mr. Berry's success in the book business caused others to follow in his footsteps, and in the 1850's, Nashville boasted five stores, several of them on Union St.
  • During the Civil War, Mr. Berry, a man of strong convictions, could not understand the position taken by the State, the community, or for that matter, his own family. It was well-known that he was a Union man. He felt that the Union must be preserved, and he was deeply hurt at what was happening all around him.
  • Separated as he was by difference of opinion, Mr. Berry's innate gentleness did not allow him to forget the old ties of friendship. "He condemned the cause but esteemed the individual.”
  • Portraits of the Berrys used to hang over the bookstore’s reading room table (that had been donated to Special Collections) in the Nashville Room of the downtown public library.

We could all learn something from Mr. Berry’s attitude; that “innate gentleness” combined with the inclusivity of our modern bookstores would bring peace and good will for the holidays, indeed!

Sapphire, Intern and Guest Blogger


lucille ball


Sarah is a Program Coordinator with Metro Archives. Her interests and areas of expertise are history, reading books (of any kind), music, travel, Harry Potter, and bingeing a good comedy series. When not in Archives, she is either nose-deep in a book or planning her next trip. Learn more about the fascinating materials found at Metro Archives through their website.